The Meursault Investigation.

Standard reminder, since I’ve been asked this several times a day lately: The top 100 prospects package starts to roll out on Wednesday, February 10th, with the organizational rankings; the top 100 list itself follows on Thursday, with the org reports (including top tens) posting the following week.

I did not like Camus’ The Stranger, which is widely considered one of the greatest novels ever written – it was #58 on the Novel 100, and appeared on the Bloomsbury “100 must-read classic novels” list too – because it is a book completely devoid of … well, anything. Emotion. Feeling. Heart, at which I suppose Camus would have laughed derisively. Camus rejected the “existentialist” label often applied to him, and devoted much of his writing, fiction and philosophy, to refuting the nihilist philosophies of his contemporaries in the surrealist movement. Yet The Stranger struck me as nothing if not nihilist, a book that argues that there is no meaning in anything, not even in the killing of another man, in this case the nameless Arab (later made famous a second time in a song by the Cure) whom the protagonist kills, leading to his own execution. It’s a story of disaffection turned into total disconnection, a novel that is both atheist and anti-humanist at the same time. If that’s not nihilistic, I’m more than a bit confused (again).

Kamel Daoud’s critically acclaimed 2014 novel The Meursault Investigation is a response to Camus-cum-Meursault, written as a serious of monologues delivered by the narrator to an unseen journalist. The narrator, it turns out, is the younger brother of the nameless Arab, and he is seriously pissed off. Mostly at Camus for killing his brother “twice,” once in the murder, a second time by refusing to deign to give the victim a name, even while creating this enduring novel about the act. The victim’s name was Musa, and his brother, Harun, would like us all to know that – and in so doing, opens up a series of doors on the historical relationship between west and east, white and nonwhite, European and African or Asian, and so on down the line.

Daoud’s angry narrator distills the rage of a race and a religion and a color into the righteous indignation of a younger brother whose life was irreperably altered by the senseless murder of his older brother. Harun’s father had abandoned the family, and with Musa dead – and no body to bury – he and his mother end up moving out of their city home to a village outside of Oran, but not before Harun fulfills his mother’s wish that he kill a Frenchman in symmetrical vengeance for the death of her son. This event splits his life into before and after, and becomes part of the foundation of his own anti-nihilist philosophy, one that simultaneously rejects religion and views God as “a question, not an answer,” one that blames France for screwing up Algeria through colonialism and then blames Algeria for screwing up Algeria once the French have left. And let’s not even start on how much he blames his mother, whose inability to grieve for the dead son whose body was never found (because Camus erased it) has derailed the life of her younger child.

The Stranger struck me as a work of dead prose, what a novel would look like if the author stripped out any sense of emotion, feeling, even senses like wonder or fear. It’s like Gadsby, the novel written without the use of the letter ‘e,’ a neat trick that does nothing to make the novel any better for the reader and probably makes it worse. The Meursault Investigation infuses all of that missing emotion back into the book, as the pages practically glow with the narrator’s rage and weep with his frustrations. It’s alternately funny and infuriating, the extended monologue of a man drunk on emotion rather than alcohol. Daoud is giving Camus a giant middle finger by turning the French author’s novel inside out and revealing to us everything that Camus left out. As someone who simply can not understand the mountains of praise heaped upon the earlier work, I read The Meursault Investigation with great joy, as if I’d finally found a kindred spirit who rejected The Stranger for its nihilistic implications, yet one who providers layer upon layer of complexity that a reader of Camus would likely never have begun to consider.

Colorless Tzukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage.

Haruki Murakami wrote one of the best novels I’ve ever read, his magnum opus The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, a masterful blending of reality and dreamlike sequences (some literally in characters’ dreams) that combine to explore Japan’s trouble dealing with its brutal legacy from World War II. It’s #16 on my top 100 novels of all-time list. He followed that up with another tremendous novel, Kafka on the Shore, in 2002, another book that deals with the philosophical aftermath of the second world war, weaving a brilliant twin narrative that also delves into dialectics, the dream/reality divide, and “really good dumps.”

Since Kafka, however, Murakami has written just three novels, none up to the level of those two works. After Dark was short and felt unfinished, while I never bothered with his thousand-page tome 1Q84 due to its heft and comments from friends that it wasn’t worth the time required. Given the positive press around his latest novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, I at least had some optimism that Murakami was getting back to peak form, but after ripping through it last week, I am sorry to report that this book sucked. It’s a cold, aimless, distant, unsatisfying novel that takes Murakami’s frequent theme of alienation to the extreme of alienating the reader from the book itself.

The title character is seriously bummed out, with good reason: once part of an extremely tight-knit quintet of friends, he found himself abandoned and shunned by the other four without reason or warning, entering a period of suicidal depression for six months before emerging a very different person on the other side, although his life afterwards remains monotonous and largely friendless. Now in his late 30s, Tsukuru, an engineer who designs railway stations, finds himself in the first serious relationship of his life, but his semi-girlfriend, Sara, insists that he confront his four friends to deal with the unresolved sadness and angst that is blocking him from fully committing to their (or any) relationship.

It’s a solid premise for a book, but what happens next is a whole lot of nothing. Tsukuru visits his friends one by one, eventually going to Finland for the last of the encounters, and gets factual answers to his questions of why he was excommunicated, but only in the most superficial way. He learns about two crimes committed against one of the friends, the first of which was loosely connected to his banishment, but Murakami never bothers to go into those in any detail, much less tell the reader who committed them. While the novel ends with Tsukuru obtaining a sort of closure, it’s a thoroughly unsatisfying variety at least for the reader; there’s no cathartic event, but there isn’t even enough of an explanation to justify Tsukuru feeling any resolution of what’s “blocking” him. He believes he’s “colorless,” but why did the novel about him have to be that way too?

Next up: Kazuo Ishiguro’s new novel The Buried Giant.